Thinking About Mike Kelly
Jude Wanniski
April 8, 2003


Memo To: Maureen Dowd, NYTimes columnist
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your memories of Mike

There’s been so much said and written about Mike since he died in Iraq on Friday while covering the war that I was not going to write anything myself. I knew him, not nearly as well as you did, but enough so that I can’t get him out of my mind. The column you wrote Sunday about your friendship only made it worse, knowing how much he wanted this war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and before he could see that and report it the war ended his own life. We had several contacts over the years, at my initiative, because I could see he had the makings of a great reporter and you know I’m always on the lookout for great journalists, there being so few. I’ll run your column here, Maureen, and append the three-star (***) rating we gave Mike in our 1992 MediaGuide, the last we published. Of the several hundred journalists we covered, there were only 26 who rated higher than Mike that year, where his excellence was in covering the 1991 Gulf War.

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“The Best Possible Life”
By Maureen Dowd, New York Times, April 6, 2003

WASHINGTON. Michael Kelly was a lucky guy.

When he stumbled upon a column of Iraqi troops during Desert Storm, they surrendered to him, piling into his car with their white flags.

He was the only reporter to find passion in the Dukakis campaign; he met his future wife, Max Greenberg, a beguiling CBS producer, on the bus.

Michael always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to get the best quote and the best story, the best jobs and the best life.

"I've had one good break after another," he told The Boston Globe, in an interview last year about how he'd revived The Atlantic Monthly in just two years as its editor. Cruising in his 1966 baby blue Mustang convertible, he said he'd had "a long series of lucky breaks and good jobs and stories and a life I like living."

He did many things well enough to provoke envy: he was a dazzling writer, editor, dancer, cook. Except he wasn't the sort you'd envy; he was too generous. He'd had his share of donnybrooks, in print and out, but he was, to use one of his own terms of endearment, a "lambikins."

When I had boyfriend troubles or work troubles, I would show up at his house in Washington. He would always be sprawling on the chaise lounge I gave him as a wedding present, reading Orwell or A. J. Liebling or John O'Hara. And he would always get up and make a gourmet meal, with wine he'd chosen and herbs he'd grown, for Max and me.

He liked to say he'd had "an unusually seamless life." He was crazy about his parents, Tom and Marguerite, and wanted to become a reporter because his dad had been a reporter at The Washington Daily News.

"My father would bring me in on Saturdays to the newsroom - an old-fashioned one with the bookie in the corner, reporters bringing in beer - and I would hang out," he told our friend, Diana McLellan.

Even at 46, the father of two little boys, Michael never lost the raffish air of an altar boy who'd just talked a nun into letting him smoke a cigar in the sacristy.

He looked like a Dead End Kid, an Irish imp with blue eyes, pug nose, round face and round glasses. He was wickedly funny, a great mimic who made people laugh so hard that the section where we worked at The Times was dubbed "Happy Valley."

He had many important jobs but no phony airs. He went to parties at his local firehouse way before 9/11. He was deeply sentimental about ordinary working-class people - and maintained an angry outsider posture in his column even as he was embraced by the conservative mandarins of Washington.

"He had enviable eyes," said Leon Wieseltier, his colleague at The New Republic. "He observed more in a glance than other reporters did in a week."

The boy could write.

On the decline of liberalism: "Its animating impulse is . . . to make itself as unattractive to as many as possible: if it were a person, it would pierce its tongue."

On Ross Perot: "H. Ross Perot made his way onto the national stage, barking like a dog and occasionally biting off small pieces of himself."

On the first gulf war's bombing of Baghdad: "The tracer rounds made lines of incandescent beauty, lovely arcing curves and slow S's and parabolas of light."

He said war reporters were people "who did not want to get in harm's way but merely close enough to record the fate of those who did."

But he put himself in harm's way because he wanted to go back to Baghdad and see America kick out Saddam. "Tyranny truly is a horror . . . It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face."

Michael was the first American reporter to die in Iraq, when the Army Humvee he was riding in came under Iraqi fire and rolled into a canal south of Baghdad airport.

At an impromptu wake at his parents' house on Capitol Hill Friday, Marguerite Kelly, who writes a Washington Post column about raising children, put out her usual spread of food. And Tom told friends his son was lucky: He had had the best possible life for a journalist and died well, better than full of tubes in a hospital somewhere.

Michael died for two things he believed in: Journalism and ridding the world of jackboots.

And as Pat Moynihan said when he learned J.F.K. was dead: "I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually."

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From the Repap 1992 MediaGuide

Kelly, Michael, The New Republic. (***)

Special Middle East correspondent. Kelly covered the Gulf War and its aftermath with stark, graphic reports that etched indelible images on the mind while capturing the political forces at work in the region. In “Blitzed,” 2-11, he vividly evokes the first days of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad and a harrowing trip to Jordan: “[Baghdad] has finally discovered the obvious: a contest between a Third World semi-power fighting World War II and a First World superpower fighting World War III is no contest at all.” He examines King Hussein’s ambitions in “Desert Rat,” 2-18, and “Speech Defect,” 3-4, making a better effort than most reporters to place the King’s precarious balancing act in full geopolitical context. Reporting on the allied sweep into Kuwait in the darkly poetic “Kiss of Victory,” 3-18, he notes that he never even saw an Iraqi soldier with a weapon in his hand, while in “The Rape and Rescue of Kuwait City,” 3-25, he writes unsparingly on the atrocities the Iraqis left behind: “The corpse in drawer 12 had been burned to death with some flammable liquid. The body was curled like a fetus, and what remained of the head was still barely recognizable as a skull, but a skull that seemed to have been slathered in a brown viscous material and then baked in a kiln.” Just as uncompromising is his depiction of the devastation allied bombers leveled on Iraqi soldiers trying to flee Kuwait City, “Highway to Hell,” 4-1. His cover story on post-war Kuwait, “Rolls-Royce Revolutionaries,” 4-8, received attention because of his revelation that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was being rushed into the war-devastated country to work on the emir’s Bayan Palace, but just as important was his firsthand observation on discontent with the royal family in the highest circles of Kuwaiti society. He takes readers into the Kurdish refugee camps in Iran, “The Other Hell,” 5-13, providing important details on this underreported story, as he documents how the Iranian government bears much of the blame for the horrific conditions. In “Back to the Hills,” 6-3, he scores another scoop, divulging that Baghdad’s defeat of the Kurdish rebels was less than the massive victory depicted in the press, and that a “delicate balance of power” now exists.